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Creating The Ultimate Social Enterprise

I’m often asked what my motivation was for starting Stitch, a community to help anyone over 50 find the companionship they need.

Most people guess (correctly) that it wasn’t because I had experienced the challenges of finding companionship as a senior, given I’m only just about to turn 50 myself.

I didn’t, in other words, start Stitch to solve my own problem (to “scratch my own itch,” as they say in startup-land). I also didn’t set out to build something for a family member or someone else close to me. And I didn’t see a huge market opportunity that could make me and a bunch of investors fabulously wealthy. No, there was much more to it than any of that.

First, let’s rewind a bit

Several years ago I went to grad school to do my MBA. My main reason for studying again was to give me the skills, and more importantly the confidence, to be able to run a business. I knew I didn’t want to work in big corporations any more, I just didn’t quite know what sort of company I did want to work for.

The subject I was most excited about was, naturally enough, entrepreneurship. But I was totally unprepared for how much of an impact the subject would have on me. Our lecturer was Filipe Santos at INSEAD, one of the world’s leading academics in the field of social entrepreneurship.

I had never even encountered the term “social enterprise” before, but in our very first lecture I found my entire worldview being turned upside down. I can even remember looking down to see the hairs on my arms literally standing on end. What Filipe was describing was just about the most exciting thing I had ever heard.

There has to be a better way

Filipe started by describing the two types of companies I was already familiar with: for-profit companies, and charities.

For-profit companies govern most of the economic activity of the world, and are driven by the simple goal of maximizing profit to increase shareholder value. They drive a lot of innovation, and increasingly try to combine some kind of social responsibility in what they do, but when you strip everything back their entire reason for existing is to make money.

Charities, on the other hand, have a goal of performing a social good, or addressing some kind of a social issue, and rely on donations and handouts to do so.

Both perform enormously important roles in society. But both have their downsides.

The problem with charities is that relying on donations and handouts isn’t an inherently sustainable activity. Government policies and social attitudes change over time, and many charities are competing for an ever-diminishing slice of available funds.

And of course history is littered with problems created by for-profit companies, driven by the goal of profit above all else (in other words, greed). Working for a large corporation my entire career had left me questioning whether this really was what life was meant to be about.

Introducing the social enterprise

Filipe went on to describe a third type of company, one that was only just now starting to receive the attention it deserves: the social enterprise.

Social enterprises are businesses that use a sustainable business model to intentionally tackle social problems. Unlike pure charities, social enterprises are commercially viable businesses capable of creating revenue, which means they don’t need to rely on handouts or charity to effect social change. Yet unlike for-profit businesses, social enterprises target social impact as their primary goal. The ability to maximize growth and revenue is simply a way to maximize the size of this impact.

In other words, the more successful a social enterprise is financially, the bigger positive impact it can have on society. Social enterprises can be either for-profit or not-for-profit, but they’re commonly characterized by the philosophy of “do well by doing good.” This sounded like just about the best thing I had ever heard.

The seeds of Stitch

I proceeded to write my Master’s thesis on social enterprise, and when I subsequently left my job at my previous company, set about starting a business that would have the twin goals of being financially sustainable while making the world a better place.

That first company was called Tapestry. It created a simplified tablet computer, designed to help seniors who had been left behind by technology to stay connected to their family, the community around them, and the services they needed. My own grandmother was in an aged care facility, which meant the issue of isolated seniors was something with which I had direct experience.

We worked very hard at Tapestry and achieved modest success with it (even won a bunch of innovation awards), but despite the important impact it had on its users’ lives, we never found a way to make it financially sustainable. We ended up selling the technology to a health-tech company that was interested in combining it with some of their other offerings. Tapestry wasn’t ultimately successful, but it did do one thing very well: it introduced us to the issue of social isolation as people age. And it wasn’t just seniors who were telling us that they were lonely: it was everyone.

The impact of loneliness

It’s only when you start looking into the issue of isolation that you learn how big an issue it is, and how its impact is only just beginning to be understood by researchers and governments alike.

Here are some incredible facts:

  • If you’re over 60, loneliness is more strongly correlated with negative health outcomes than either smoking or obesity
  • If you’re over 60 and say you are lonely, you are 45% more likely to die than your socially connected peers
  • And you’re 64% more likely to develop some form of cognitive impairment

Loneliness has been called “the epidemic of the modern age.” But it’s only now starting to be treated seriously by health professionals and governments around the world, as its impacts are only just beginning to be fully understood. One thing is for sure: loneliness affects us all at some point in our lives.

As we age, our social circles inevitably shrink, whether that’s through divorce, relocation, ill health, or even death. It doesn’t need to be the loss of a life partner. Friends get hip replacements and can no longer come on walks with us. Family members relocate to be closer to their kids.

When we’re younger, our social circles are constantly replenished, without us needing to think too hard about it. We go to school, we get jobs, we become parents – all these things bring a new set of people for us to meet and form deep connections with. But once we reach a certain age, this process slows down and eventually stops, unless we actively do something about it. The problem is that there aren’t a whole lot of options available to meet like-minded companions as we get older.

The only industry that actively centers around helping people make new introductions is online dating. And sure enough, it turns out that lots of older adults have been turning to online dating as a way to meet new people. But a lot of the time a “date” isn’t what they’re looking for; many aren’t even sure they’re looking for romance.

And the online dating industry is broken in so many ways – filled with frauds and scammers, with dozens of companies whose business practices are highly suspicious and often downright unethical – that it’s as much part of the problem as the solution.

That’s why we care so much about Stitch

I have had half a dozen people tell me they were having suicidal thoughts before they found the Stitch community. Many more have written hugely personal letters to me thanking us for what we’re doing (you can see a tiny sample of them on our testimonial page). And that’s what makes working on Stitch such a rewarding experience.

Stitch isn’t a sustainable business yet – in fact, if we don’t find a way to grow more quickly, it is in danger of not getting there – but no matter what happens, we know we’ve built something that has made a real impact on the lives of thousands of our members around the world.

We’ve made a lot of personal sacrifices simply to get Stitch to this point, and we’re continuing to do so, all for one very simple reason: we know that Stitch truly matters. Our dream is for Stitch to become the ultimate social enterprise.

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About The Author
Andrew Dowling
Andrew Dowling
Andrew is an internationally-recognized social entrepreneur specializing in building businesses which make life better as we age. Andrew is currently Founder & CEO of Stitch, the world's leading companionship & activities community for over 50s. With over 150,000 registered members in over 50 cities, Stitch helps anyone over 50 find the companionship they need, whether that’s friendship, romance or anything in between.
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